The Australian

March 27

I WATCHED the manager of a prestigious beauty salon handle a client who fronted up with a six-month gift voucher that was about to expire. She wanted to make an appointment. At such short notice, there was “no way” the salon could squeeze her in before the expiry date. And no, they wouldn’t extend the gift voucher a week or two. It was policy. It was written in the fine print. The woman had her reasons for not coming during the six months. The manager would have none of it.

The client was getting teary. Her four best friends had put in $400 for her birthday. Surely it wouldn’t harm anyone to extend? “No,” said the manager, with a visible sneer and a flick of her hair. A young woman sitting next to me shook her head. “That’s at least five people and me they’re going to lose as actual clients, and potentially hundreds more as the story goes viral,” she said.

“Each woman will tell five others who will tell others the dreadful story of ‘Blah’ salon that denied a sick woman her 50th birthday present. Then someone will post it as a tweet or on Facebook, and a whole tribe of women will boycott the salon. Social media can shut down businesses.”

It’s not an overstatement. Recently consumers, fuelled by Greenpeace, attacked Nestlé on Facebook for using Indonesian palm oil, the production of which is destroying the rainforests. The story went viral as outrage grew; mainstream journalists reported the reaction; faced with damage to its reputation and/or share price, the company compromised. Gone are the days of businesses holding us to ransom. Technology has led to the era of ­people-power. “It’s the era of the consumer,” says Australian social media expert and top blogger Laurel Papworth.

Sites hitting back at companies and products are springing up. It’s citizen journalism. And not just at a corporate level. People are tweeting in real time from establishments about bad service, nasty waiters and rip-offs. Says Papworth: “Some are live-streaming from their iPhones and posting it on YouTube” – for example, catching designer John Galliano’s anti-Semitic rant. “Clever companies are starting to employ full-time Twitter, blog and Facebook watchers so they can see their names come up and put out fires on the spot.” The voice of the disgruntled consumer will not be silenced. And establishments will have to stay on guard. I hope the nasty salon manager takes heed. She is no longer the powerbroker in this world of armchair activism.